God's Sovereignty Doesn't Mean He Controls Everything, And Here's Why


Is God sovereign? Yes.

Does that mean he controlled who won last week's US presidential election?


Can these two statements both be true? Aren't there biblical texts that seem to say that God controls everything? Isn't saying he doesn't control some things a limitation on his sovereignty?

A column I wrote for Christian Today last week with the title Yes, God Is Sovereign. That Doesn't Mean He Chooses Who Runs America generated an extraordinary quantity of Twitter abuse. Some might have taken exception to a slight hint of anti-Trump bias (a "serial sex pest, braggart, narcissist, bully and all-round loose cannon who has been described as the most unqualified person ever to seek high office") but in general the critiques had two main thrusts. One was that the Bible teaches God is in control of everything. The other was that if you didn't believe that you didn't believe in his sovereignty.

Both are wrong.

Take the biblical texts. Here are a selection of the many suggested, and why I don't think they can be used to argue God chose Trump as President:

"I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster. I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isaiah 45:7). This doesn't say that every time there's prosperity or disaster God does it; it just says he does it. And it has nothing to do with Trump's election.

"The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Proverbs 16:33). An election is not the same as a roll of the dice.

"We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). Amen and amen. God will bring good out of evil; it's what he does.

"He changes times and season; he sets up kings and deposes them" (Daniel 2:21). The clear biblical witness is that God is active in biblical history; no argument there. But whether his involvement extends to dictating the result of a US presidential election is a different matter entirely.

So, you see where I'm going here. A text without a context is a pretext. We can't just lift out of Scripture a text that is specific to a particular time and place and make it universally relevant. Furthermore, we have to think about what kind of Scripture we're talking about: poetry is not designed to teach core doctrine, it reflects how God's people actually live and experience their faith. We can go badly wrong if we make it say more than it means.

The Bible teaches that God works in history. It teaches that he is all-powerful and all-knowing (omnipotent and omniscient). Because he is all-powerful and could stop evil if he wanted to, and sometimes chooses not to, there is a sense in which he wills what he allows. But that is not the same as saying he desires it ­– and this is where those who believe his sovereignty means he controls everything fall into terrible error.

God does not will evil. It is incorrect to say when someone suffers it's because God has ordained it. It is wrong to say he controls everything that happens. Sovereignty does not mean that God plans everything.

Just think about what it would mean if he did. It would mean God ordained the Holocaust. He ordained the slave trade. He ordained the drugs that are ruining countless lives. From the killing fields of Cambodia to the concentration camps of North Korea: all of this is God's sovereign will. The child who dies before its time, the suffering of those with incurable and life-limiting illnesses: God has done all of this.

You don't think that follows? Well, you can say that of course God's sovereignty doesn't negate human free will and it's all a mystery. But here's the thing: understood like this – with him in absolute control of every outcome – it does. If God planned the result of the US election, it means he dictated the choices of the millions of people who voted for Trump, choosing exactly how the electoral college votes would pan out to give him the victory. Could he have done so? Of course. Did he? We have absolutely no biblical reason for thinking so.

And what about the unchosen evils – the illnesses, the premature deaths? Are we to assume that these too are ordained by God? There are plenty of examples in the Bible where God seems to inflict sickness or death – like Miriam's leprosy in Numbers 12, for instance. There are other occasions when people just get ill or die – like the Shunammite's son in 2 Kings 4. But this terrible fatalistic doctrine implies that God himself is deliberately inflicting death and disease on everyone who experiences it.

It's a view that's promulgated by influential Bible teachers like those associated with The Gospel Coalition. There's a TGC podcast entitled Why 'God Didn't Ordain That Tragedy' Is Terrible News that argues this. It's a three-hander between John Piper, Matt Chandler (who has suffered from cancer) and David Platt. They talk, honestly and sometimes movingly, about suffering and their own experiences of it – and of how what got them through it is the belief that God ordained it. This is described as "high view" of the sovereignty of God.

One of them (I'm not always clear who's talking) says God "not only allows these things but he ordains these things for our good. We have a loving father who gives us what works together for our good."

And someone says, "[If he didn't] then he's not in control, and he's not able to ensure that this is going to work together for good."

And here's the logical leap that falls right into the spiritual crevasse. It's not because God plans what happens to people that he's able to help them in it and bring them through the valley of the shadow of death. It's because he is God. And he is not a micro-manager, carefully inflicting exactly the right level of pain on us for our own good; he is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

What's happened when language like this is used is that the Bible is being squeezed into the mould of human logic and philosophy. It satisfies the contributors to that podcast and I'm truly glad it helped them. But I want to say that it's not, actually, intellectually satisfying, and you are not obliged to believe it.  

And what about that charge that God is not really sovereign if he doesn't plan everything? Think of it like this:

Suppose I have a cat, and it's sitting in the middle of the sofa where I want to sit.

I can move it to the right, and I've exercised my sovereignty over the cat.

I can move it to the left, and I've exercised my sovereignty over the cat.

I can tell it to move, and I've exercised my sovereignty – whether it does or not.

Or I can sit somewhere else, and I've still exercised my sovereignty by leaving it entirely up to the cat whether it chooses to move or not. If it moves to its bowl, I'll give it water. If it meeows at the door, I'll let it out. If it claws at the furniture I'll yell and throw a newspaper at it. It can come and sit on my knee, and I'll stroke it.

How is my sovereignty impaired? It isn't. The cat has free will. We are in a loving relationship – at least, I tell myself it's loving on the cat's side too, but hey, it's a cat.

And that is a truer picture of our relationship with God than the image of him as a puppet-master, jerking the strings of humanity to produce a particular election result while he leaves us the illusion of free will. Freedom, as I said in that much denounced earlier post, is freedom – and we have to deal with it.

Mark Woods is the author of Does the Bible really say that? Challenging our assumptions in the light of Scripture (Lion, £8.99). Follow him on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods